Now Christmas is past,
Twelfth Night is the last
To the Old Year adieu,
Great joy to the new
— From the traditional song “Pembrokeshire: Song of the Wren”
Twelfth Night is one of those obscure holidays that I would like to revive. It is usually said to fall on January 5 (the eve of the Epiphany) but sometimes it is celebrated on January 6. (It depends on whether you believe the Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day or the day after.)
Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, originally written to be performed on Twelfth Night, captures the nature of this holiday with its focus on role reversals and pranks. Twelfth Night festivities usually include drinking and feasting, gambling and clowning around, dancing and attending plays.
In many European countries, a special cake is served on Twelfth Night or Epiphany with a token hidden inside. Whoever gets the token (a bean, a pea, a coin, or a figure of a baby) becomes the king or queen of the festivities, dons a crown (you can make yours out of paper or tinfoil), and demands the other guests fulfill their ridiculous requests or copy their every move. “The king drinks!”
In France, the cake is called galette des rois (“the king’s cake”). The recipe I use (found online at this blog) is for a delightful puff pastry filled with almond cream. It is cut into as many pieces as there are guests, plus one, and that extra portion is set aside for the first visitor. In New Orleans, the cake is called a king cake and is shaped like a doughnut and decorated with Mardi Gras colors (purple, green, and yellow) as a recognition of the start of the Mardi Gras season. In England, the cake would be more like a plum pudding or fruit cake with a pea and a bean inside. In Portugal, it’s bolo rei, a sweet bread containing raisins, nuts, and crystallized fruits, baked in a ring, with a dried lima bean and fortune-telling tokens tucked within.
Twelfth Night is one of the traditional days to take down your Christmas decorations (the others are February 1 and January 13). It’s also a good day to wassail your fruit trees. And a great opportunity for another party before returning to the workaday world (the Monday after the twelve days of Christmas was called Plough Monday in England).
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
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